Appreciation: Fred Browne

Architect at the forefront of Ireland’s national industrial and social infrastructure


Leading Irish architect Fred Browne died on February 9th, at the age of 90, in Dublin. His career spanned the second half of the 20th century, during which time, embedded in the firm of Robinson, Keefe and Devane Architects (RKD), he was at the forefront of national industrial and social infrastructure.

Browne was inherently hard-working and modest, so that his contribution to national life was never trumpeted or broadcast. In reality though, through his work for the new An Foras Tionscal, later the Industrial Development Agency (IDA), he pioneered the practice of “project management” for large fast-track architectural projects. And together with a team of technocratic young civil servants and talented construction professionals, Browne provided the spatial contexts for major multinational companies such as Polaroid and Amdahl in a modernising Ireland from the 1950s to 1970s.

Within RKD, Browne was the architectural consultant for the ESB’s new power stations including Dublin’s iconic Poolbeg chimneys (1971-78) and became the architectural expert for Ireland’s mid-20th-century industrial landscape, developing industrial estates and factory complexes from Donegal and Galway, to Kerry and Clonmel.

Born on December 23rd, 1926, Fred Browne came to the architectural profession in 1949, after a successful degree in architecture at University College Dublin, then in Earlsfort Terrace, where he won the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) travelling scholarship. Following an inspiring study tour to the Netherlands and France in 1948, Browne tentatively settled in to practise at RKD.

The two influences of his formative years were the wartime conditions of the 1940s and the prevailing patronage of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Seemingly idyllic secondary school years were spent at St Mel’s in Longford from 1939, while the second World War raged in Britain and Europe. Browne and his compatriots were isolated and in a sense insulated from that international trauma so his postwar trip to northern Europe left an indelible mark upon him.

Years later while recounting his admiration for 1920s Dutch architectural modernism, he recalled the impression of war-damaged Rotterdam. Arguably, Browne’s resolve to invent spatial environments for a reticently industrial Ireland came out of this Dutch postwar example of building a “brave new world” from scratch.

Working on such projects as Crumlin Children’s Hospital (1956), the young Browne learned his trade from John J Robinson (1887-1965). A favourite of the Catholic Church, Robinson had designed the architectural backdrops for the Eucharistic Congress, 1932. With Robinson (and Dick Keefe) at the helm, the practice designed Catholic churches in new Dublin suburbs throughout the 1930s and 1940s – such as those at Cabra, Killester and Drumcondra – and vocational schools at Marino (1936) and North Strand (1940s).

Fred Browne’s first major solo commission was for the temporary church at Ballyfermot, Our Lady of the Assumption from 1951, and it was there in 1953 that he met Anne Robinson, John J’s daughter, whom he married in 1954. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Browne and his colleagues Andy Devane (1917–2000), Paddy Robinson and Roddy McCaffrey designed much of Ireland’s social and pastoral infrastructure. While Browne dipped his toe into industrial schemes, he was also actively engaged in the massive and not uncontroversial Galway Cathedral project (1949–65) with Robinson. Two of his better-known commissions happened at the end of his career – Tallaght Hospital (1985-98, Co Dublin), won by public competition; and the Hewlett Packard complex, Leixlip (1995-97, Phase I, Co Kildare).

He became the go-to person for industrial architecture in Ireland; developing an arrangement through which one point of contact, RKD Architects, took responsibility for the complete organisation, management and delivery of a project, from site selection to final completion, allowing a project to be managed efficiently, on time and within budget. This has now become standard practice for large architectural projects in Ireland.

Fred Browne is survived by his wife Anne, and his seven children, David, Kate, Suzie, Freddie, Holly, Sally and Annabel. His daughter Julie died in 1976 following a swimming accident. He is also survived by his three sons-in-law, two daughters-in-law and 21 grandchildren; as well as his brothers and sisters Harold, Vera Bourke (nee Browne), Michael, William, Charles and Raymond. His brother, Henry, died as an infant.